Clara is all sex and fangs. The 200-year-old strumpet and grifter has just beheaded a man and is on the run again, and she nearly pops out of her cheap corset and snakeskin pants trying to distance herself and her immortal daughter from an old (and undead) boys club. While Clara (Gemma Arterton) prowls for girls to pimp out to businessmen, her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) offs sick old ladies in nursing homes. This sad-eyed, conflicted angel of mercy spends most of her days in silence, scribbling down her history and throwing it out open windows; she purses her mouth in a tight line to hold back her desire to scream her tale to passersby. "There's a story there. You can feel it," one curious old man says of her…right before she bleeds him.
Byzantium is obsessed with silence and secrets—and the price you pay for keeping or breaking both. Director Neil Jordan's moody vampire story unspools in a clammy English seaside town across two centuries, flashing between forever-teenage Eleanor's tentative present-day romance and forever-whore Clara's truly oddball 19th-century origin tale, which revolves around a syphilitic scumbag played with overblown zeal by Jonny Lee Miller.
It all feels like a very stylish, noir piece of Anne Rice fan fiction, which makes sense: Jordan directed the still-divisive, Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Byzantium is a spiritual sequel to the 1994 flick—right down to the undead existential ennui. The genders are switched, but themes of loss, dissatisfaction and codependency are still front and center.
Most of the Dracula trappings have been wiped away. The pair traipse around in daylight, and when peckish they dispatch their prey with a spiky thumbnail. Yes, this is annoying. Thankfully, there's still blood—arterial sprays, sticky pools and even waterfalls of the red stuff—and epic mom-daughter screaming matches. The movie has its eye-rolling moments, especially Arterton's overwrought outbursts, but Ronan fairly glows with forlorn menace.
The fact that Byzantium is a genuinely tense and sexy thriller doesn't actually matter. For fang fans, vampire movies are a lot like pizza—there's no such thing as a bad one. Byzantium works because its vamp trappings are wedded to a family crime story that's truly unsettling. Living with your mother for 200 years—what could be more terrifying than that?
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Byzantium is rated R. It plays at Cinema 21 Monday-Thursday, Sept. 30-Oct. 3.